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Art at the Border

I haven’t been anywhere where art serves as many purposes as at the Tijuana border. For this gringa it’s been a welcome relief from a hot, dusty, noisy city with little of the green and fall colors of Oregon. The art lifts my spirits and strengthens my resolve to fight the horrible injustices being done by the U.S. every day to people seeking nothing more than a safe place for themselves and their families.


When we started putting out paper and crayons on the ground at El Chaparral, none of us could have predicted the impact on the children, their parents, on adult asylum seekers traveling without children, and all the volunteers, including Javier and me, who are there every morning.

Art as Remembrance

At Playas de Tijuana, the border wall stretches out into the Pacific in some insane attempt to restrict even the ocean. Here the impact of art plays an especially important—and poignant—role. The flamboyant art found everywhere at Playas is a conscious, in-your-face challenge to the drab, lifeless border wall whose only goal is to stifle all human connection.  

One section of the wall has slats listing the names of deported U.S. soldiers, many of whom served multiple tours of duty. Reading their names, ranks, and branches of military service shocks many visitors who did not know that men and women who fought and risked their lives for our country have been deported (for as little as a DUI) to a country they’ve never lived in, far from their families. And then, in a final disgraceful postscript, we learn that after their deaths their bodies may cross the border into the U.S. to be buried with full military honors. Many names on the wall have R.I.P. added after them.


Art as Political Statement

Big bulbous hearts line the boardwalk at Playas. Painted and repainted periodically by artists from all over Mexico, these hearts are a constantly changing visual reminder of what’s going on just a few miles inland at El Chaparral. Many focus on peace, because there is an ongoing effort to establish Friendship Park in Playas de Tijuana as an International Peace Park. In one place there are tiny child footprints walking. Talk about a visual statement.

Art as a Vision of the World We Want to Live In

At Playas you see hope everywhere, in itself a powerful contrast to the wall. Inspiring quotes, rainbows, symbols of peace have remade large areas of the oxidized wall into colorful canvases stretching as high as tall ladders could enable artists to climb. One shows two entwined pinkie fingers, a visual reminder of the pinkie blessings shared by people on both sides of the wall on Sundays, where the thick mesh wire added to the wall on the U.S. side makes it impossible for family members to touch more than the ends of their pinkie fingers.

Art to Educate

At Playas, a part of the border wall stretching down to the sand and close to the water features large portraits of Dreamers. The sheer size and scale of these portraits allows them to be seen from a distance. From up close you see that bar codes connected to them give information on the stories of these Dreamers. One of the Dreamers portrayed in the mural spoke at Border Church recently.

Hope Through the Eyes of Children

Hope is alive everywhere in the colorful children’s drawings displayed on the fence each morning at El Chaparral. Both the process and the art have surprised and moved me, and I suspect the parents as well. 


These children, who have experienced and often witnessed unthinkable traumas, still, day after day and independent of each other, create sunshiny pictures of houses with peaked roofs, a crooked chimney, two windows, flowers, and a sun in the corner. Who would have thought that children from so many different places and very different architectural styles would almost without exception draw houses that look exactly like those most five-year-old kids in the U.S. have drawn for generations? It’s been fascinating to observe. Family portraits, often labeled, and including pets, are often drawn, as well as many smiling self-portraits. And there are smiling portraits of angels—family members, like the father of one little girl whose dad was killed just two days before, when her mother fled for her life with her children. “My daddy is an angel,” she said simply.


One day we put a 4-foot piece of 18-inch white paper on the ground to see how the kids would use it. Soon, seven or eight children were creating a mural together. As a former teacher, it was one of the coolest things I’ve witnessed in the realm of collaborative learning.

  1. The kids didn’t know each other. They were from different countries and spoke different languages and dialects.

  2. They varied in age a lot. The youngest were around three; the two oldest girls were about ten. The other boys and girls were somewhere in between three and ten.

  3. No-one assumed control. None of the big kids bossed the younger ones. 

  4. One girl very casually began drawing some outlines of clouds at the top. Without saying anything, in a little while she added a few outlines to different parts of the drawing. The  younger kids happily colored them in while the older kids worked on the overall landscape. 

  5. Nearly the entire mural was done with very few words.


Art as Therapy—Healer, Calmer, Stress Reliever

Families seeking asylum at El Chaparral escaped with their lives and very little else. Many of the children have had no toys to play with for many months. Imagine what that would be like for the children you know. Many stay in cramped shelters with nothing for children to do for the nearly four months they wait for their number to be called, and remember, many of these children are used to being in school. The presence of something as simple as piles of crayons, blank paper, and a couple of coloring books on the dirty ground every morning has allowed many children to have fun, to let their imaginations take hold, to do something familiar. They are smiling, happy. Everyone shares. The older kids are incredibly tolerant of toddlers who often prefer to sit on their coloring page or in the center of a drawing, crinkle up the paper, and hold the basket of crayons between their legs! Children share with their siblings and often come to me to point out someone they think might like to color but who is a little shy. Some moms and dads get down on the ground and draw with their children. Every day there are kids who help clean up without being asked.

The fence has become la galería at El Chaparral. The kids choose the spot and together we put the pieces of masking tape on the corners. Some children run to get their parents and bring them back to show them what they did. One young boy did not want to leave his drawing on the fence when his family’s number was called, so I carefully took it down. He taped it on their suitcase as they went through and boarded the van that will take them into the U.S. and directly into the hielera for who knows how long.


We also have children’s art displayed all over the main room in La Casa de Paso. The walls of art are added to by every family who stays here. Exhaustion is something all families share. It’s hard to sleep for four months stuffed in a small pop tent with five other people besides your family of three. One woman said someone used her stomach as a pillow every night. La Casa de Paso is a safe place, one where they can relax, sleep well, take a hot shower, and let their kids play while they relax and even complete an adult coloring book drawing. The art on the walls at La Casa de Paso lets families know at a glance that this is a good place, a welcoming place, for them and their children until they cross the border.